Posts Tagged ‘NGOs of all sizes’

How do conservation NGOs respond to criticism?

I am pleased to present my first guest post. The author is as anxious to conceal their identity as I am mine. I’ll call them GL. I will post my own thoughts in response shortly.


We are all well aware of the growing body of critiques of conservation in the developing world – MJ’s earlier posting “Shoot to Kill” being one of the latest examples. However it’s about time we thought more about the ways in which conservation organizations deal with criticism, because it is in understanding and improving such reactions that things will hopefully change for the better. The work of a group of scholars known as the displaced and disobedient knowledge group which deals broadly with the social impacts of conservation resonates very much with my own experiences and understandings of the social impacts of conservation and how conservation NGOs deal with criticisms that their interventions don’t have as squeaky clean a record in this area as their publicity makes out. The disobedient knowledge group has produced three most interesting publications thus far, all well worth reading: the first is a very lucid report from a conference they held in 2008, the second a Special Issue of Current Conservation which was published earlier this year, the papers within are excellent, and the third a special issue of the journal Antipode titled Capitalism and Conservation. I thoroughly recommend all three. The group, which includes scholars such as Jim Igoe, Sian Sullivan and Dan Brockington, are particularly concerned with the displacement of people, economic activities and knowledge about these dynamics by the biodiversity conservation movement.

Anyway, down to the meat of this posting – how do conservation organizations actually respond to criticism? What follows are some ideas compiled from readings, testimony from colleagues from across the global south, and from my own personal experiences. The conclusion emerging suggests that some of the more powerful actors in conservation have unconsciously evolved a common set of approaches to dealing with criticism and questions which challenge their programs and approaches to conservation. Some of the approaches adopted by these particular conservationists to received criticism may include a selection of the following strategies:

1. Claiming devotion to the cause, having suffered personal hardship and low pay in order to try and achieve conservation. (One could term this to be an environmental missionary argument of sorts).

2. Making debates personal – and steering them towards polarization of views, and portraying them as personal/institutional attacks. Staff of Conservation Organizations and Researchers can and do take things personally in these difficult debates.

3. Using various non-specific (opaque) terms to describe how interventions are actually well designed and have people at the centre (Participatory, Consultation, Empowerment, Alternative Livelihoods, Development, Success), when such success is actually contested.

4. Confounding efforts to achieve successful alternative livelihoods with actual results in doing so. Or said in an other way – diversion of claims on factual matters about success in relieving poverty or improving human well-being towards emotional claims of caring about people and trying hard (i.e. good intentions).

5. Claiming that “we all want the same thing” (the ‘we’ being conservationists and advocates of environmental justice). Perhaps overlooking the fact that biodiversity conservation organizations are not the same thing as research bodies or organizations/individuals working on social justice, human development and human rights. This could be said to be a failure to recognize that those questioning the social impacts of conservation may actually have different fundamental world views and priorities than conservationists!

6. Calling into question the accuracy and validity of researchers’ claims through informal and gossip channels, without issuing formal responses/rebuttals.

7. Deliberate efforts to bully and marginalize critical researchers by questioning their authority, competence or capacity to ask questions or make comments about the given conservation intervention/policy.  This extends to excluding such critics from field sites or attempting to silence them or censor what they are allowed to talk to local communities in the conservation intervention areas.  Similar exclusion at the level of policy processes is common as well.

8. Undertaking post hoc rationalizations of debates which were deliberately avoided or cut short by conservationists. This is done in such a way so as to suggest that those critiquing conservation didn’t want to enter into debates with them, or that critics of conservation deliberately tried to set up one sided debates.

9. Simply ignoring the findings of critical research or pretending they are unaware of it.

10. Attempting to deflect attention by suggesting that critics of conservation are wasting their time by focusing on conservation which is inherently good (although dysfunctional), when there are others (mining and industrial agriculturalists for example) who are doing much worse things, and with larger questions of how things like neo-liberalism/capitalism/globalization/western consumption really drive many of our environmental problems.

There are of course many individuals and organizations working in conservation who do actually engage constructively with critics and critical researchers, discussing together practical solutions and adopting research findings in order to improve the equity and effectiveness of conservation interventions, but this posting is intended to stimulate debate about the parts of conservation which don’t do as well as they could.


Accountable to who?

Accountability is a big thing in development these days. Mostly this is in relation to governments (national and local) in developing countries who have a habit of appearing not always to act in the best interests of their citizens. However, the development sector has enough free thinking types to detect the whiff of hypocrisy when it arises, and, especially within the NGO sector, we are increasingly encouraged to be properly accountable for what we do, and in particular to be accountable to our proposed beneficiaries. If we are working for them, or on their behalf in some way, then we should have to demonstrate to them exactly how we are benefitting them, and justify our work (and salaries) as being value for  money. Most advocates’ of development, including this one, only acquaintance with a ballot box is as electors not being elected.

I, for one, am from time to time apt to bemoan the lack of downward accountability in donors and erstwhile ‘international partners’ (anyone who sends us money, basically) whenever they may (shockingly!) voice an opinion at odds with ours. But those who live in glass houses etc etc, and so it befits me to consider to whom I  am accountable.

How about, then, those communities we are supporting in our projects? It might not surprise you to learn that I and my colleagues would not be exactly over the moon about subjecting ourselves to rigorous value-for-money tests by our claimed beneficiaries. Why? Well, despite our modest salaries by western standards, we still earn more in a month than many of our beneficiaries do in a year. Our projects are complex, and need careful explaining even to well-educated types; how do we justify them and their complexities to people who have barely completed primary education? In short, what looks proportionate from one perspective, can look fantastically rich from another.

Perhaps, in a few years, by which time we hope our projects will be starting to pay off substantially for the communities, they might be more accepting, but for now we have to conclude it  would be one incredibly hard sell. Hence we have a number of proxy accountability mechanisms which allow us to get input into our evolving plans, but it is also true to say that we take steps in advance to guide those decisions in what we believe to be the right direction, which isn’t necessarily what you might think from how we describe these meetings and other mechanisms to donors and the like. And, since we pay per diems to community representatives to turn up to these meetings, you can rightly ask yourself, who is accountable to who?

The communities elect representatives to local and national government, who then employ on their behalf a range of officials to look after different functions. To an extent we are then accountable to these elected councillors, members of parliament, and government officials of various sorts. This accountability certainly matters because these guys can kill off our projects and organisation pretty quickly if they like, due process or no. But are they themselves accountable in how they wield that power? Do they exercise judgement on behalf of their constituents or on behalf of themselves? Unfortunately, the evidence is often for the latter, and thus, because we are pragmatic about things, we often find ourselves buying their support in one way or another, as well as making their decisions easy by doing right by their electoral masters.

Are we accountable to our NGO board, perhaps? They generally have a good grasp of the broad brush strokes of what we’re doing, and they are an important safety net should something go seriously wrong, e.g. a senior manager found guilty of corruption. However, they are also often busy, and their experience of running similar projects variable. We do not always have enough time to explain sufficiently issues arising, and hence decisions may not be fully informed. Sometimes we are secretly relieved that a potentially awkward discussion was quickly closed, other times it can be greatly frustrating when decisions go unexpectedly against us. The end result; full disclosure at all times is not always the best option (indeed senior board members have advised us this way) and we have to carefully manage our board. (The challenges which this in itself imposes would be magnified many times over if we had to go through the same process with our beneficiary communities.)

Accountable to our donors, then? Now we’re getting closer. We have to submit regular reports and accounts to our donors. They keep us on our toes with independent evaluations (although those consultants conducting said reviews are not always as independent as you might think). Our donors are either developed country governments (and their amalgamated creations like the EU), large trust funds, or their intermediaries (generally BINGOs). For the most part I assume most BINGOs are no more accountable to their boards and members in terms of day-to-day programme management than we are to our board, whilst governments’ donor agencies do not, in my view, pay too much attention to how most of their voters would imagine development should proceed.

In fact the critical accountability process is proposal writing. This has its own flaws and requires various platitudes. But if you can persuade a donor to fund you, then you have set the path on which you will proceed with at least part of your work usually for several years. We may present annual budgets to our board for approval, but they are governed by the budgets agreed with donors; if our board want to reject these budgets we’d all be in something of a pickle.

There are some NGOs, I assume every country and every sector has them, which are known locally as puppets of a/several donor(s). We like to look down upon them. Although it is all shades of grey, we like to believe that we are in more control of our destiny than these puppet NGOs, that we pick and choose what proposals we write, and that if a donor demands too many changes then we may even turn down the money. How, ultimately, do we make these decisions? What sets us apart from the puppets?

Our board is certainly important, but in some senses I believe my greatest accountability is to myself and my immediate colleagues. I do know that when my own performance does not live up to the standards I like to aim for, when there is just too much to do and too little time to do it, that I get stressed because of my own expectations. My auto-accountability often exerts the greatest pressure on myself. It is also the kind of accountability about being able to hold one’s head up high, and so is about self-imposed social pressure from my selected peer group of conservation and development professionals.

Finally we can bring this full circle by considering that our beneficiary communities, our partners in government (national and local), our board, our donors and international partners, have all bought into the story that we have put together as to how we believe we can succeed with our projects. They support the overall strategy (or at least the bit of it that concerns them) and for the moment seem prepared to give us their cooperation, moral support, time of day, money and technical advice respectively. Whilst operational decisions made by management are rarely exposed to the glare of full accountability, we are delivering the most important thing of all: impact on the ground. For this we are accountable to our own high expectations of ourselves, assessed by our peers, and generally accountable to everyone.

Accountable to Accountants?

There has been quite a discussion of NGO accountability recently in the blogosphere kicked off by Till Bruckner’s guest post on Aid Watch about NGO budgets in Georgia. Aid Watch subsequently posted a series of replies from the NGOs involved, and Scott Gilmore jumped in with his two cents. Caveman Tom summarised the whole to and fro here and then subsequently added his analysis.

Update: Aid Info also put the case for budget transparency very succinctly here.

I kinda agree with both sides, but ultimately think Scott Gilmore is closer to the truth. Budgets (and actual expenditure) are pretty fundamental to evaluating any project. They indicate the allocation of resources and give a clue to value-for-money. I get frustrated any time I am presented with project information without the finances. It suggests people have something to hide. So notwithstanding the fact that it was USAID who appear to have redacted the project budgets, I sympathise with Till Bruckner.

That said, I get even more frustrated with donors who like to impose budgetary restrictions. Different projects need different approaches; most rules of thumb are pretty useless when evaluating budgets. I’ve heard donors say things like they weren’t happy because the recipient government spent all the money on per diems and cars. Except that we also spend most of our money on salaries, per diems and car journeys. What the donor really meant is that they were disappointed with the lack of impact that came from all that expenditure. This is Scott Gilmore’s point.

Apparently one of the bones of contention in the Georgia case was NGOs’ reluctance to divulge their jealously guarded overhead rate they have negotiated with USAID. This is one area where I boggle to understand what the real problem is. Who actually cares what the overhead rate was? What we ought to care about is the quality of the work done. We all instinctively understand this any time we hire a builder; paying a bit more ‘overhead’ (supervisor salary) might lead to much better results. Hiring the cheapest contractor is often not the best option. Conversely if an NGO is really good at what they do then I think it is appropriate to pay their staff a bit more – they deserve it!

In the private sector when someone buys a service from someone else they rarely ask the service provider to break down the exact costs; they just compare reports of the quality of service (perhaps including from their own experience) between different providers with the range of costs and make a decision. Service providers who do not offer value for money are quickly pushed out of the market.

The trouble is that in the development sector the customer is two completely different actors: the donor and the beneficiary. Donors find it very hard to evaluate projects they’ve funded, and for all the talk of putting beneficiaries at the heart of development aid, and getting them to make the decisions, in reality this happens very little. The result is plenty of BINGOs getting away with mediocre quality work. Assuming the entire structure of aid is not going to change very much in the near future donors need to put more effort into actually assessing impact.

Transparency over budgets and expenditure will assist in determining value for money but they are far from being the whole cigar.  Obsession with budgets and expenditure leads to the tyranny of the accountant. Till Bruckner and other jumped up accountability experts (see J’s excellent critique) should take note. Accountability is a lot more than just doing the accounting.

(In my next post I shall discuss to whom I think I am accountable …)

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